Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Beppo, the conscript - Part 10

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Very little passed that day between Beppo and his father and brother. Had they been townsmen instead of peasants, and, specially, had they been Tuscan townsmen, the tidings which Beppo brought home would have formed subject for endless talk at every spare minute during the day;—(the tidings respecting the conscription, that is to say; of course the other load at his heart had to lie there, and be borne in silence as best it might;)—but Paoli Vanni and his sons were contadini and Romagnoles; and but few words were said. Beppo briefly told them, as they went to their work, that the worst fears of the country were to be realised; that the conscription was certainly to take place that year, and that a day for the drawing would be named shortly after the completion of the communal lists.

At dinner-time the same information was given in similarly concise words to the poor mother, who manifested but little more emotion outwardly than the male members of the family had done; but she rose early next morning, and privately taking from the secret hoard of the produce of her yarn, the price of two fair wax tapers of half-a-pound each, she stole off to the village, and, having bought what she needed, set them up alight before the altar of the Blessed Virgin of the Seven Sorrows, with an earnestly breathed prayer that the holy Mother would deign, in consideration of that humble offering, to preserve a mother’s son to her. True, all the other mothers in the parish would, in all probability, do the like. But it was not probable that any one of them would go to the expense of tapers of half-a-pound each. It was to be presumed, therefore, that the prayer so backed would be effectual. Nevertheless, poor Sunta, in her anxiety, turned back when she had gone a few steps from the church, and again kneeling before the figure with the seven daggers, stuck in artistic grouping through the satin of her stiffly brocaded, pyramidal-shaped robe, she promised two more tapers of equal size in case of a favourable result.

Poor mother! If earnestness could avail to make her prayer heard, it must have had its effect.

And so the day passed sombrely enough among the inhabitants of Bella Luce. The days had passed more sombrely there, even to old Paolo himself, since Giulia had left the farm. But that black Monday, after Beppo’s return from the city, was more so than ordinary.

In the evening, a little before supper-time, came Don Evandro. The priest was always a welcome guest at Bella Luce, for he knew how to make himself agreeable, with the tact so specially the gift of the Roman Catholic clergy, both to the farmer and to his wife. And the frequent presence of the priest at their table conferred a tone and style in the estimation of the Santa Lucia beau-monde that nothing else could have compensated for. Many of the parish clergy in the poorer and remoter districts of Italy are glad enough to give the consideration bestowed by their presence in return for the hospitality afforded them. But this was not Don Evandro’s object. He was too well off, though far from being a rich man, to need a meal; and he had always some ulterior object in view. Power was what he wanted, and the means of leading his parish whithersoever he chose that it should go.

He was perfectly aware of Beppo’s journey to Fano,—had in some degree prepared for it beforehand; and the object of his present visit to Bella Luce was to shape and confirm the impressions which he pretty shrewdly guessed the young man had brought back with him.

“I suppose, Signor Beppo, you brought home with you full information respecting this detestable and abominable conscription.”

“Yes, your reverence. It seems that it is all determined on,” said Beppo, in a weary and dispirited manner.

“And that is what the godless, usurping government and the infidel revolutionists call liberty! Liberty!—the forcible tearing of the flower of the population from their homes and their families! Man-stealers! My heart bleeds for the unfortunates who are thus sent off to destruction, temporal and eternal. Ay, eternal! For what are they when they come back to their native soil,—if ever they do come back? Reprobates! They leave their paternal roofs well-disposed, God-fearing youths; and the few who ever return are lost reprobates, fearing neither God nor devil, filled with false notions and heresies, perverted in heart and in mind alike! Were I a father, I would rather see my son in his coffin than see him taken by the accursed conscription.”

The father and mother and the two sons listened to this outburst with awe and terror. And the old farmer began to fear that he should certainly be expected to turn out his hoards, in order to buy his son off destruction, temporal and eternal.

“It is a very bad business,” said the old man, scratching his head; “I don’t see what is to be done in it—not I! Suppose our Beppo should be drawn, your reverence; what can a poor man like me do?”

“But there is good hope he may not be drawn; surely there is good hope,” said Signora Sunta, clasping her hands. “The Holy Virgin is very good. We have always done our best both at Nativity and Conception, besides a candle at the Annunciation—and always the best wax. Your reverence well knows we have never failed,” said poor Sunta, appealingly; “surely we may hope that the Virgin will send us a good number.”

“You have every reason, my dear friend, to expect a blessing on you and yours. I know nobody in whose case 1 should look forward to one with greater confidence,” replied the priest; “but the worst of the misfortune is, that a good number cannot be trusted to as an escape.”

“Signor Sandro told me something of that,” said Beppo; “but I did not rightly understand him. He seemed to say, as far as I could make out, that after they had drawn the men by lot, if they did not like what the lot gave them, they picked out others.”

“Well, it comes to nearly that,” returned the priest; “for these sons of Belial are not honest even in the carrying out of their own infamous laws. If there is a man they fancy anywhere near on the list, they will make all kinds of lying excuses to get rid of the others, till they can put their hand on him. Such a lad as you, my poor Beppo, is just the sort they want to make a soldier of; and you may depend on it, if they have half a chance, they will leave no stone unturned to get hold of you.”

“I don’t think that seems fair,” said Beppo; “a fair lot is in the hands of the blessed Virgin and the saints; but when you come to picking and choosing, that is another matter.”

The theory which thus limited the sphere of the influence of the spiritual powers was a curious one. But the Bella Luce theology was about contemporaneous with the Bella Luce system of vine-dressing, which, as we have seen, dated from before the Georgics.

The priest, however, only said in reply to Beppo’s remonstrance:—

“Fair! no: as if anything done by a robber government was likely to be fair! It is all a mass of fraud, and violence, and tyranny, and iniquity, and godless impiety together.”

It will be observed that the priest was very much more outspoken in his disaffection to the new government than he had been on the former occasion, when we had last the pleasure of meeting him. But Signor Sandro Bertoldi, the attorney, was present upon that occasion; a man from the town, not one who could be counted on as a stanch adherent of the good cause—in short, not a safe man at all. Now, the parish priest was speaking before none but members of his own mountain congregation, and he spoke out accordingly. He was not aware, however, how far the minds of the younger generation of his audience had slipped away from the old moorings, and drawn (who can say how? Who can say how minds do draw nutriment from the surrounding atmosphere of thought, as silently as trees do from the air?) somehow or other the material for the formation of new judgments and views of the world around them. The slowness of the peasant’s mind, the submissive reverence which prevents him from ever “giving his priest an answer,” as the vulgar phrase goes, and the unexpansive silence in which his intellect works, combined to prevent the parish clergy from being fully aware of the degree to which the minds of the rising generation of their flocks have emancipated themselves from their leading-strings. Not that there was the slightest danger that any one of the Bella Luce family would have made any use of the disaffected words uttered by their priest in a manner to be injurious to him. Besides that, this unhappy conscription question had, to a certain extent, thrown their minds into unison of sentiment with his once more. Otherwise Beppo had begun to form a shrewd opinion of his own, that the papal government was about as bad a one as it could be; and that the new one, at all events, promised to be much better. But this conscription—it could not be denied that it was a bitter pill, and a staggering difficulty for the adherents of the new order of things.

“They do say,” remarked old Paolo in reply to the priest’s last words, “that money may buy a man off if he is drawn. I should not wonder: there’s few things that money can’t do. But how can I find the means of buying Beppo off?—a poor working man like me. How can I do it, your reverence!—not to be able to keep a decent house over my head and pay my way, church-dues and offerings and alms and masses as well. How can it be done? It stands to reason it can’t.”

This was a desperate attempt on the part of the old farmer to know the worst, and ascertain whether he was expected to ransom his son at the cost of his hardly-saved and dearly-loved dollars. He knew very well that, if the priest said he must do so, he should have to do it. And he had thrown out a few topics for consideration to the curato—with the greatest tact and delicacy, as he flattered himself—which he thought might have the effect of influencing his decision upon the point in question.

The oracle spoke, and comforted him inexpressibly.

“There are few things, as you remark, Signor Vanni, which money judiciously employed may not do. Certainly it may bribe the wretches, who have usurped the territory and the power of the Holy Father, to disgorge the prey which they have seized in their infamous man-stealing. But I have very grave doubts of the lawfulness of thus expending money. I may say, indeed, that I am tolerably sure that it cannot be done without sin. And 1 have the means of knowing that such is the opinion of those in high places, and of the best authorities. To contribute money wilfully, not by compulsion, to the support of the excommunicated government is to give aid, countenance, and comfort to the enemies of our Holy Father, and persons under sentence of excommunication, which is very palpably damnable and mortal sin. But assuredly those who give their money for the purpose in question are guilty of doing this. My mind is quite clear upon the subject. I do not see how I should be able to give absolution, perhaps not even in articulo mortis, to a person lying under the guilt of this sin!”

“But,” Beppo ventured to say timidly,—“but, your reverence, if you go to fight for the new government yourself, is not it as bad as paying another to do it for you? Must it not be equally sinful to go yourself? And yet one or other of the two you must do.”

“Must you?” said the priest, drily.

“Well, your reverence, it seems that if you are drawn you must,” said Beppo, simply.

“My notion is,” said the priest, “that there will be a pretty considerable number of young men—God-fearing, well-educated young men—drawn for the conscription in this province who will do neither the one nor the other: who will neither suffer themselves to be torn away from their country to fight against their Holy Father and lawful sovereign, nor yet give money to his enemies to hire somebody else to do so.” And as he spoke he rubbed his hands slowly together, and looked hard at Beppo.

The old father and mother looked from one to the other with watchful interest; the former much relieved in his mind, and feeling more than ever that Don Evandro was a second Daniel come to judgment.

“But it’s no use for a man to say he won’t go,” rejoined Beppo. “Willy nilly, he must go. If he won’t go by his own will, he will be taken by force.”

“Oh, no! certainly; it is of no use for a man to say he won’t go—of no use at all. It is not by saying that a man can do his duty to his God, and his Church, and his country. Duty mostly needs something more than saying,” returned the priest, with a very marked emphasis, and still looking hard at Beppo.

“I don’t see it, your reverence,” said Beppo, looking puzzled. “What is a man to do, then?”

“And yet it seems pretty clear, too,” rejoined the curate. “You say, if a man won’t go, he will be taken by force?”

“So I am told,” said Beppo.

“Who will take him?” asked the priest, Socratically.

“Why, the soldiers, I suppose!” said Beppo, with very widely opened eyes.

“And where will they take him from? Where would they take you from, for instance, if you did not go to them?” continued the priest, pushing on his catechism to its conclusion.

“If I were drawn, and did not go to give myself up at Fano, they would come here after me, and take me by force,” said Beppo, beginning to think that the priest was really uninformed upon the subject.

“Very true; they would come here—here to Bella Luce! But suppose they did not find you here?”

“Then they would take me wherever they could find me. Why, bless your reverence’s heart, they aren’t put off in that way.”

“They would take you wherever they could find you, no doubt. But suppose that they could not find you at all?”

“What! If I were to put an end to myself,” said poor Beppo, not appearing to be very much startled by the suggestion; “but I thought, your reverence, that that was not lawful to do in any case?”

“Put an end to yourself? I am shocked at you, Beppo! Unlawful?—of course it is. How could you imagine I had such a thing in my thoughts?”

“Then I am sure I don’t know, and it is not for such as I am to guess, what is in your reverence’s thoughts!” said Beppo, utterly puzzled.

“Why, my good friend, Beppo, you are not so quick as I thought you. If you are drawn for the conscription,—say, you don’t go. The soldiers come here to look for you;—don’t find you.—‘We want Beppo Vanni,’ say they; ‘where is he?’—‘Really can’t say,’ says my friend, Signor Paolo.—‘Sure he is not in the house?’ says the officer.—‘Quite sure,’ says Signor Paolo. ‘You can search it if you like.’ They do search it, but they don’t find Beppo Vanni. Then they come away to Santa Lucia to see the curato, and try what they can make out of him. ‘We are come to look for one Beppo Vanni, a parishioner of yours, your reverence. Can you tell us where we can find him?’—‘He lives at Bella Luce, when he is at home,’ says his reverence; ‘is he not there now?’—‘No, he is not there. But I suppose your reverence knows where to find him?’ says the officer.—“If he is not there, he must be out in the hills. There are many wolves and wild boars, and such like, in our mountains, but they are mostly very hard to catch,’ says his reverence; ‘Beppo Vanni is very fond of hunting. If you keep on the wolf’s track, I dare say you will find him; and I wish you a pleasant job of it,’ says his reverence.

Now do you see it, friend Beppo?” asked the priest, when he had concluded his little exposition, of which the latter part was delivered with considerable dramatic effect.

“What, take to the hills per bene?” said Beppo, with a grim smile;—“for good and all,” as an Englishman might have said.

“Ay, for good, assuredly?” said the priest. “But it would only be for a short time, just till the secret was blown over, and the soldiers out of the country. That is what all the best men in the country will do. The excommunicated king will find that he will get very few men in Romagna, except the scum of the towns, to fight for him against the Holy Father.”

“It looks like skulking, as if one had done something to be ashamed of, keeping out of the way in the hills in that fashion,” said Beppo, thoughtfully.

“You will find, my friend, that all the shame will lie on the other side,” returned the priest. “I tell you that all the best men in the country—those of them, at least, who have the misfortune to be drawn—will take to the hills.”

“Your reverence spoke of the wolves and the wild boars,” said Beppo, with a sigh; “every man’s hand is against them, and they are hunted down.”

“Yes,” returned the priest, quickly; “they are hunted down because every man’s hand is against them. But there is just the difference. Those who take to the hills in this sacred cause will have every good man for their friend. We priests,” continued Don Evandro, with a grim smile of conscious power, “are everywhere; and, do what they will, they will never root us out. Wherever there is a parish—what do I say?—wherever there is Catholic soil, there is a Catholic priest. And wherever there is a priest, those who are homeless for the good cause will have a friend. We shall have our eyes on those who are out in the hills on account of this business. They will not be let to want, neither for food nor for shelter; no, nor for communication with their friends at home,” he added, looking hard at Beppo, with so meaning a glance that it was all but a wink.

“And your reverence thinks that it would not be for a very long time—that those who go out into the hills will be able to return to their homes after awhile?” asked Beppo, musingly.

“Of course. It stands to reason. Specially those who live not in the towns, but in out-of-the-way places like this. Why, we are almost among the hills, as you may say, here. As soon as this conscription business is over, the troops will quit the country,—go to be shot down by the Austrian cannon, or to cut the throats of their brothers in Naples, or to be led to sacrilege against Rome, and be struck dead, perhaps, in the horrible act: what do I know. They will be marched away; and then the country will be quiet, till God sees fit in His mercy to restore the lawful and rightful government; and when that day comes, as come it surely will before long, those who have refused at any cost to bear arms against their Holy Father will have cause to bless themselves, and thank their good fortune.”

“And your reverence thinks there would be means of holding communication with—with one’s friends at home, or—or in the towns?”

“No doubt about that,” said the priest, again looking, with peculiar intelligence, hard at Beppo. “We shall take care about that. There would be no lack of means of communication. Any man in the hills for this cause might know, day by day, if he cared about it—which is hardly likely—what was the news in the towns.”

“That would be a great thing, certainly,” said Beppo, meditating, and seeming to speak more to himself than to the priest.

“What! I suppose your visit to Signor Sandro’s house yesterday has made you wish to hear from him again, eh?”

“Yes!—no! That is, your reverence, not from him particularly,” replied Beppo, far too simple to tell a lie, even when it was put into his mouth for him by the person to whom it was to be told.

“Ah! I see!” said the priest, pretending to misunderstand him; “not from him, perhaps. I am told that Lisa Bertoldi is becoming one of the most charming girls in Fano—immensely improved of late, and greatly sought after. No wonder, with her expectations. It is a pity her father should have let some of those scamps of officers come round her. But that will be all over as soon as they are out of the country—pests as they are! But Lisa is a prudent girl, and is very safe not to commit herself.” (The priest did not guess that Lisa had been perfectly confidential with Beppo on the subject of her loves with the captain of Bersaglieri.) “Would to Heaven,” he continued, “that as much could be said for that unfortunate Giulia! I have almost reproached myself for having advised that the proposal of Signor Sandro to send her to Fano should be accepted for her. But God knows I acted for the best, and to the best of my judgment. Who could have thought that a girl so brought up would have gone to the bad so shamefully, and that in so short a time?” And the priest lifted his hands and eyes to heaven, or, at least, to the ceiling of the farmhouse kitchen, as he spoke. “But the fact is,” he added, dropping his eyes with a meek, resigned sigh, “that when a girl is thoroughly bad nothing can save her. A heartless, false girl is, and must be, lost, whether in town or country.”

The supper, of which Don Evandro had partaken with the family, had been finished long ago. It had consisted merely of the minestra, a bit of cheese afterwards, and a flask of the farmer’s Bella Luce wine. But Signora Sunta had been assailed by no false shame, and had made no efforts to increase her bill of fare, and no boasting excuses to the priest any more than to one of the family. For he was not a guest from the city, but a fellow-villager, who was one of themselves. The supper therefore had not taken long. And as soon as it was over, la Sunta had without apology taken up the one lumino, or tall brass Roman lamp, which had stood on the supper-table, and had gone with it about her household affairs, leaving her husband and sons and their guest to smoke their cigars and have their talk by the light of the May moon which streamed in through the open kitchen-door. Old Paolo had fallen asleep soon after the conversation had reached the point at which it had been authoritatively decided that it would be wicked of him to pay out money. Since that, the talk had been entirely between Beppo and the priest, and Carlo had been an attentive listener. It was fortunate for Beppo that they were sitting so nearly in the dark, for he felt that it would have been impossible otherwise for him to have concealed from the ever-watchful eye of the priest the agitation and misery which the last words of the latter were causing him. They did but confirm his own impressions of the day before. But then those impressions had been the result of indignation—of the things which he had seen with his eyes! His eyes no longer saw them! His indignation had begun to wane! The impressions had become less forcible and distinct. It was becoming more possible for him to persuade himself that he exaggerated matters—that he himself had been to blame—that there might still be a possibility of hope for him, in short. But now the words of Don Evandro rudely threw down again all the fabric he was once more striving to raise, and cut off like a blighting March wind the new green shoots that his love, which would not be killed, was again putting forth. The pain was very agonising to him, and it was a relief to him that it was too dark for the priest to see his features.

In truth, the darkness concealed little or nothing from the priest’s knowledge, if it did from his eyes. He knew perfectly well the effect of what he was saying, as well as the surgeon knows the sensations of the patient under his knife.

But the operation was not over—Beppo had more to suffer yet.

“What mischief, then, has Giulia been getting into in the city, your reverence?” asked Carlo. “I am not surprised, for one, for I always thought her a bad one. I never knew her to stay for the litanies after vespers, not once last year; and I must know, for I never missed them all the winter!”

Don Evandro knew and understood all the low hypocrisy of this speech quite as perfectly as any man could; nevertheless he approved of it; thought it the desirable sort of tone for a young man, and considered that it showed Carlo to be the sort of man that was needed for a good subject and a good churchman. So a woman who receives a compliment which she knows to be insincere may yet be pleased with it, as indicating the desire on the part of the payer of it to please her.

“Ah! it is a bad business—a very bad business—I am afraid! Part of my object in going into the city on Saturday was to make inquiries and ascertain if there might be any hope of saving her. I fear me!—I fear that there is nothing to be done!”

The priest, not calculating on the chivalrous generosity of heart of the man he was speaking to, or rather at—(as how should he calculate on what he could not conceive?),—was overshooting his mark a little in the excess of his calumnious statements. For the idea of Giulia in danger and in trouble at once began to make love assume the mask of pity, and an evident desire to save and protect her began to override and overpower, for the moment, his own infinite misery.

“What has she been up to?” asked Carlo again.

“Oh, up to!” said the priest, hesitating as if unwilling to speak out. “What mischief do unprincipled girls get into when they get the opportunity? It is the old story. There is the town, too, full of soldiers, reprobate profligates, without religion or principle of any kind! It is destruction to the character of any decent girl to be known to have any communication with them, or be seen in their company. And this abandoned girl has formed an intimacy with one of the most notorious blackguards in the whole lot of them!”

Beppo groaned audibly, as he acknowledged to himself that his first impressions with regard to Corporal Tenda had been but too just.

“What! you don’t mean,” said Carlo, eagerly, “that she has—taken up with any one in particular you know—so as to lose her character, you know?”

“Character! It will be well for her if that is all she has lost! Character! She will never be able to hold her head up in this country any more! The best thing that could happen to her would be to follow the blackguard for good and all, and let the disgrace she has brought upon her name be forgotten. But he is no doubt too knowing a rascal for that.”

“But he may be made to answer for his conduct—to do what is right by her!” said Beppo, breathing hard and clenching his fists.

The priest could not see the action; but he knew from Beppo’s voice all that was passing in his mind. And he considered for a moment or two, during which he took a rapid survey of all the circumstances of the case with masterly comprehensiveness, whether it might be good policy to bring these men face to face with a result that might probably in one way or other make Carlo the heir to the Bella Luce homestead and savings. But he gave up the idea as involving too many possibilities of miscarriage. So he replied:—

“How make him answer for his conduct? His officers are as bad as he. There is no law to touch him. And to resort to unchristian violence would bring destruction upon your own soul, in all probability without injuring him.”

“Who is the man?” asked Carlo.

“One Tenda, a corporal; a low Piedmontese blackguard—one of the worst characters in the army, I am told.”

“A Piedmontese too!” exclaimed Carlo, with unaffected disgust; “to think of Giulia taking up with a Piedmontese, of all the men in the world! Why, it is against nature!”

“I must say that I think Signor Sandro has been very much to blame,” continued the priest, “in not making himself better acquainted with the character of the woman with whom he placed Giulia—a retired actress, I learn! It is true that, as far as I can hear, there is nothing to be said against the woman now. She has become reconciled to the church, and there is no more to be said about it. But Signor Sandro might have known that such a woman was not likely to be a safe protectress for such a girl as Giulia.”

“But, then, who would have guessed that our Giulia would need so much protecting!” said Carlo.

“That is true too, figliuolo mio,” said the priest. “Well, I must be thinking of walking homewards. It is getting late. Good-night, Signor Paolo. I need not wish it you, for you have been taking a slice of it already—a calm conscience makes an easy pillow. Good-night, Signor Beppo. We shall have some further conversation as soon as the result of this detestable drawing is known. Good-night.”

So the priest set out on his moonlight walk to Santa Lucia, satisfactorily reflecting that he had—he could hardly doubt—deprived Victor Emmanuel of one of the likeliest soldiers in Romagna; and had, in all probability, put an end to all inconveniences arising from love-passages between Beppo and Giulia.